Among the many fallacious points used by Sky and the ‘Proper Football Men’ brigade to embellish their narrative surrounding English football’s superiority over its continental neighbours is the idea that “there are no easy games” in the Premier League. The theory states that England’s best teams don’t have the luxury of glorified ‘recovery sessions’ like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich do in their respective leagues. The honest nature of English football dictates that every team fights until the 90th minute, regardless of class and financial gaps.
This, of course, has been disproven with great regularity in the opening three months of 2016/2017. In 11 games, Chelsea have already won by three or more goals on four occasions, while Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal have done it three times.
The improved Premier League TV contract was supposed to be the great equaliser, levelling the playing field from top to bottom, ensuring everyone was standing on even ground. Last season’s volatility suggested the early manifestations of that. Leicester’s fabled glory apart, we also saw West Ham and Stoke City attract marquee names from abroad, while champions Chelsea were adrift in mid-table obscurity.
That unpredictability hasn’t filtered beyond May. Despite the vast quantities of money available to clubs, the reality is that the gap between the top and bottom is widening. The surprise packages have regressed to the mean and the elite sides have got their act together. Happily, that has resulted in the quality of football at the top end improving.
The plethora of world class coaches arriving on English soil coupled with the financial muscle available has shifted the balance firmly back in favour of the established powerhouses. As the mud slinging American presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has proved, competition is better with more than two contestants to choose from – which is why this season’s Premier League title race is already shaping up to be the most exciting in years.
Manchester City entered last weekend top of the league table. Their late concession to Middlesborough allowed both Chelsea and Liverpool to leapfrog them into first. Had Arsenal defeated Tottenham in the North London derby, Pep Guardiola’s side would have ended Sunday in fourth. The top five teams are separated by five points heading towards Christmas.
Rarely in the Premier League era has there ever been more than two contenders slogging it out. Usually, it was Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and one rival battling for supremacy, but in the post-Ferguson years things appear less clearcut. History suggests that a separation will occur, as it did last season. As winter turned to spring, most anticipated a closely fought battle between Leicester, Spurs and Arsenal before the Foxes cantered to victory.
Ironically enough, La Liga fans are more accustomed to multiple teams pursuing top spot. In 2013/14, Atletico Madrid pipped both Barcelona and Real Madrid to the title on the last day of the season, drawing at the Nou Camp in improbable fashion. Last year, all three were involved until week 37, when Diego Simeone’s men were turned over by Levante. Nearly ten years ago, Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla were involved in a straight shootout, with Madrid besting their Catalan adversaries on goal difference and Sevilla having to be content with the bronze medal spot on the podium.
The last time the English title race was that tight and open was in 2013/14, when City, Liverpool and Chelsea all still had an opportunity to prevail heading into the last three games. Luis Suarez was in imperious form and a first title since 1990 was on the horizon, until Steven Gerrard agonisingly slipped and Jose Mourinho played chief party pooper to send the trophy to the blue half of Manchester. Jurgen Klopp was asked about the chances of the Reds going one better this year given their exquisite form and his response was simple. “We need to be this good to stand any chance.”
All three of those clubs will expect to be in contention at the business end this year, as will Arsenal. The Gunners have recovered from their opening day bludgeoning at the hands of Liverpool to remain within touching distance. This is arguably the most balanced and confident team Arsene Wenger has presided over in a decade, showing resilience at the back, bite in midfield and flair going forward.
Equally, Chelsea have responded to twin losses in spectacular fashion. Antonio Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 system has yielded 16 goals, five clean-sheets and five consecutive victories. Diego Costa is netting in every match and Eden Hazard has been reborn. Much like Liverpool, non-involvement in Europe should work in their favour.
Of all the contenders, City look like the biggest work in progress. Pep Guardiola is still refining the team to meet his requirements, and you get the sense that the complacency which marred Manuel Pellegrini’s last few months still lingers. Guardiola will implement his ideas eventually and City have the best squad in the league, so they should figure. It would also be foolish to rule out Tottenham as potential winners. They remain the only unbeaten team in the top flight and have the meanest defence, conceding just six times. Goalscoring is an issue, but Mauricio Pochettino has elevated them from a fragile, easy touch into a fearsome and indomitable machine.
Top level sport is enhanced by rivalries. Golf’s golden years had the big three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. We have witnessed the best tennis in history over the course of the Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray era, so the prospect of a genuine shootout at the top of the Premier League can only be welcomed.
Perhaps there will be a drop off from one or more of the top five, but currently, a case could be made for any of them. We will get a clearer indication of who will be challenging for top spot over the course of the next month, as Chelsea face both City and Spurs, while Arsenal face both Manchester clubs. It’s beautifully poised.